Internet ninjas in the mother of electoral battles in Uttar Pradesh

Aparna Kalra January 26, 2017 13 min

Story Highlights

  • In Uttar Pradesh, social media has emerged as an important medium of communication between politicians and young, tech-savvy voters
  • Internet-savvy professionals — sometimes with full-time jobs — are doing their bit for other parties
  • Candidates get little help from parties. Some have their own teams, a few borrow material and get their supporters to make videos

Aditi Singh wears lipstick, lives in a large house and has a foreign degree. In Uttar Pradesh’s testosterone-driven political circles, she stands out but, lineage-wise, she fits in. With just about three weeks to the state’s elections, Singh, 29, has to reach out to an electorate of three lakh people — an urban-rural mix that wants cleaner drains, better parks and a more efficient water and electricity supply — and show them she means business.

Singh insists she wants to do good. But, she says: “Things take time, government work is a long process, not everything is in your hands. There are different departments for everything, there is nagar palika, zila parishad.” She has to ensure her intent — and her message — gets across to voters who do not take her as just a fresh-faced kid.

Yet, Singh did not stumble on a solution on her own.

In battleground Uttar Pradesh, social media has emerged as an important medium of communication between politicians and the young and tech-savvy voter  

A supporter created a Facebook page in her name and casually picked up a thousand followers in no time. The “kid, the son of a pradhan, pursuing B Tech in Ludhiana” invited ‘Aditi didi’ to look at the page. Singh, a graduate from Duke University, always subliminally knew the power of social media, but it was the Facebook page that showed her the potential ahead of the hustings and took it over.

“It is truly just to increase your outreach, communication, or rather bridging the communication gap. I grew up in this era, technology has served me well.” says Singh, daughter of Akhilesh Singh, who won, Sadar, Rae Bareli, five times in a row, first three with the Congress, the last one on a Peace Party ticket, but is now laid low with cancer. The daughter expects to fight on a Congress ticket. The polls are due in Sadar on February 23, but the candidate list is not out yet.

Today, her Facebook page has 17,800 followers. Singh says she receives photos of poor infrastructure from people and she tries to shake up bureaucracy into action. “It is fantastic, it makes my job easier,” she says of the connect with her father’s constituency.

up_elections_inside_1

Aditi Singh’s father doesn’t care much of social media. “Woh doosri generation ke log hain,” she tells me, highlighting the schism between the old and the new in understanding what social media can do in an election  

In battleground Uttar Pradesh — India’s most-watched election where 141.2 million voters will elect 403 representatives, with 10 to 20 aspirants (with a chance) for a seat — social media has emerged as an important medium of communication between politicians and the young and tech-savvy voter. It is India’s biggest state election by voters, and has, time and again, influenced how the central government navigates its way through daily politics the day after.

In the space of a few years, social media giants Facebook and Twitter have made communication a two-way process for India’s ruling class, putting power in the hands of people to reach out to politicians in a way not possible earlier. But, that also means that the mediation of the electoral game is now out of the hands of journalists — tasked for long with informing the citizenry at large but, admittedly, often, with questionable motives in recent years — and have moved to social media. A world without, until now, checks and balances, where fake news can rule, and influence electoral outcomes.

Yes, Prime Minister

#UPElections2017 may well be the first state election being fought with social media spends and ‘war rooms’, but its foundation stone was laid in the 2014 national election by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under Narendra Modi. The Prime Minister eschewed mainstream media, which his party saw as elitist and biased, and put his views across directly to people via digital campaigns.

So compelling was the ‘embrace digital’ narrative of the 2014 election that it has got even Sagheer Usmani, active in politics for nearly two decades, studying the new medium closely. He says his Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by former UP chief minister Mayawati, believes more in the strength of its cadre and in bhaichara (brotherhood in Hindi) meetings than hashtag trends. Yet, he agrees, the 2014 polls were an eye opener.

“Now, on a big scale, everyone has been told to use social media. We understood the importance of it when, without doing anything, Narendra Modi won” — Sagheer Usmani, BSP coordinator  

“Social media was not used much by us earlier. Now, on a big scale, everyone has been told to use social media. We understood the importance of it when, without doing anything, Narendra Modi won,” says Usmani, president of a mandal comprising four districts. He responded to my tweet to him within an hour when I contacted him for the first time in November.

Usmani, polite, earthy and old-school, believes Modi was successful in misleading the nation. “He plays every card available and tells everyone: I am a Dalit, I am backward, I am exploited,” he tells me. “We want to tell people what he is doing in this country.”

The 48-year-old can be provocative on social media. “Suna hai bahut se chuhe gathbandhan karke ek sherni ko rokna chahte hain,” he tweeted on January 19, referring to the alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress later that week. Translation of the tweet: “Have heard that a lot of mice are getting together to take on the lioness.” The lioness reference is to Mayawati.

Social media war rooms create masala: #hashtag trends, images of the leader, potshots at the opposition. These are then spread as widely as possible

BSP’s online presence has countered fake news propagated by other parties. For instance, Usmani says that false news was circulated that the BSP leadership had made a derogatory comment directed at the dominant castes saying they would be hit with shoes. Some context: centuries-old caste divisions run rife in India’s most populous state even today and often decide the ballot.

Social media war rooms create masala: #hashtag trends, images of the leader, potshots at the opposition. These are then spread as widely as possible on social media
Social media war rooms create masala: #hashtag trends, images of the leader, potshots at the opposition. These are then spread as widely as possible on social media

Others are wielding social media to protect flanks, as well. When Singh, the Sadar wannabe Congress candidate, criticised demonetisation, a write-up with the headline Aditi Singh ka Narendra Modi par khula hamla went viral, pitting her, a newbie in politics, against the Prime Minister. Singh was aghast. “Bro, I did not say that. I will obviously respect a democratically-elected leader. Are you serious?” she countered.

Her father doesn’t care much of social media. “Woh doosri generation ke log hain,” she tells me, highlighting the schism between the old and the new in understanding what social media can do in an election.

Internet warriors

Businessman Anil Singh spends an hour every day after dinner on WhatsApp. He receives messages, he forwards them. He even generates his own; here’s a sample:

Jaati dekhkar vote dalne valon, itna yaad rakhna,
vidhayak chun rahe ho, jija nahin.”

chunav aayod dwara janhit main jari
#up_election

(Those selecting a candidate on the basis of caste, remember, you are selecting an MLA, not a brother-in-law.
— Issued in public interest by the Election Commission)

Anil — we will call him by his first name to not confuse with Aditi Singh — has lived in Lucknow for 17 years and backs candidates who are involved in janhit or welfare of the people. He supports PM Modi but says the backing is for as long as Modi does good work. Anil’s real estate business with an annual turnover of Rs 1.5 crore is “done in white”, he insists.

The real estate developer thinks of social media as the perfect vehicle to reach politicians, who, he says, will otherwise disappear in the five years between elections.

“Reaching them through the internet directly is good. Transparency will improve our leaders and our nation,” he believes.” We will have to rise above casteism and nepotism to improve our leaders, and the way to improve them is through the internet.” Anil, who has a daughter who is pursuing engineering and a son in school, became active digitally two years ago, first using Facebook and then WhatsApp.

Does he check the veracity of WhatsApp forwards? Yes, he says.

Apart from its war room in Lucknow, where digital, TV and on-the-ground campaigns come together, BJP has a national team, a state-level team and a two-way social media campaign that goes down to booth level  

He doesn’t know it yet perhaps, but Anil is a small and unofficial cog in the giant and sophisticated digital campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which is nervously eyeing the UP polls. (Other parties are desperate to emulate its copy book social media outreach success, but that’s another story.) “We have a very large volunteer network. It is a diffused and an unaffiliated kind of network,” Amit Malviya, who heads BJP’s national information technology cell, tells me. The interaction with the ground is a two-way process, he adds. “We get feedback from the local district, from the cadre. We listen intensely.”

Apart from its much-publicised war room in Lucknow, where digital, TV and on-the-ground campaigns come together, the party, which rules India, has a national team, a state-level team and a two-way social media campaign that goes down to booth level. The interactive Facebook, YouTube, Google+, e-mail and WhatsApp onslaught allows BJP to “reach 12 lakh people by the push of a button,” says Malviya.

Others catch up, too

Internet-savvy professionals — sometimes with full-time jobs — are doing their bit for other parties, too. Anil Yadav, Pankhuri Pathak, two Delhi youngsters who were nominated by the SP to do a short course on applied politics in the United States, and a bunch of 20-somethings in the party, have used #IsupportAkhilesh for a year to gauge how many people favour chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. Members of this hashtag team travel with the chief minister to rallies (and inaugurations such as that of the Agra-Lucknow Expressway) to tom-tom his achievements and statements.

Internet-savvy professionals — sometimes with full-time jobs — are doing their bit for other parties, too  

They will supplement, of course, SP’s war room, and also a team which manages the incumbent chief minister’s verified Twitter handle and Facebook page, both of which have large followings.

The Congress Party, on its own, has been having a bad run since the 2014 general election and matters seem frayed on ground. Despite an early start with star strategist Prashant Kishor, daily execution is not baked into the plan. Not everyone is happy with war room instructions or a top-down approach. Ayaz Khan, who describes himself as a “khandani Congressi” puts it like this: “I have been constructing a house since 1975. Now, someone else says they will build it, but can my help also be taken.” The sense one gets after a long, meandering conversation is that Khan either finds the instructions too impersonal or his ambition is getting in the way of executing them.

Elsewhere, another Akhilesh (last name withheld), an IT engineer who lives and works in Mumbai, gives all kinds of backend support to a Twitter handle, @BSPUp2017. Akhilesh says he identifies with the Dalit cause and got associated with the handle after searching for BSP’s presence on social media a few months ago, and realising none exists.

His wife and son are surprised at and resent the time he spends. After coming home from work, he is devoted to the handle, tweeting everything from support of Mayawati to posts marking a year of Rohith Vemula’s death. Vemula, a Dalit doctorate scholar, committed suicide on expulsion from Hyderabad University’s hostel after being accused of a skirmish with the BJP’s student wing.

Businessman Anil Singh with his son. Singh spends an hour each day on WhatsApp, receiving and forwarding messages in support of candidates who involved in janhit
Businessman Anil Singh with his son. Singh spends an hour each day on WhatsApp, receiving and forwarding messages in support of candidates who are involved in janhit

Paresh Mishra, a lawyer and a Brahmin, deals with the media for the BSP, a party that does not believe in spokespeople. He says no official page exists for the BSP, but there are some 40 pages run by nearly 1,000 volunteers. “The expenditure is what we have earned from our brotherhood,” says Mishra, who estimates the money being spent in the Hindi-belt state as it heads to the polls to be Rs 3,000 crore. He shows me short videos on his phone on the BSP’s work uploaded on YouTube.

Embrace social

For many, social media presence is vital to grab attention within their parties. “Several (people) are running social media pages to promote themselves in the eyes of the leader,” says Shant Shukla, who covers politics for Dainik Bhaskar, one of India’s most-read Hindi newspapers.

Candidates run their own social media campaigns, getting little help from their parties, whose spending is focussed on the leader’s achievements. Some have their own teams, a few borrow material and get their well-wishers and supporters to make videos, their online presence driven by a rise in use of smartphones among their voters. (Pew Research estimates smartphone use covered 17% of India’s population in 2015.)

Candidates run their own social media campaigns, getting little help from their parties. Some have their own teams, a few borrow material and get their well-wishers and supporters to make videos  

“Even in the villages, when someone sits at night (with his phone), he wants to know — what has my MLA done,” says Pooja Pal, a two-time MLA from Allahabad, readying to contest for a third time. Her Facebook page has metamorphosed in two months from a crude collection of photographs of herself and some random relatives to a sleek one with a display photo, a cover photo of the party and a mix of her achievements and posts and cartoons taking potshots at the opposition.

Most candidates follow similar styles, with photos of themselves working, campaigning door-to-door, and lending an ear to complaints.

A fractured electorate watches this circus in fascination. “Poster lagane se kya aadmi jeet jayega,” says Ram Chandra Tripathi, an auto driver whose children use social media, talking about the candidates. (Does anyone win elections by just putting up posters?)

While most candidates realise that the virtual world by itself is not enough, it provides 24×7 visibility when combined with their presence on the ground.

Politics, PR and caste

On Mall Avenue in Lucknow, in an old-world colonial building that is the Congress office, a dapper Vikram Pande paints the big picture of the state election. He pegs the social media, advertising and PR spend in the forthcoming polls at Rs 1,500 crore.

Pande, 32, secretary of the state unit, is one of the few to be promoted straight from the student wing to the main party, agilely skipping the youth wing. Unlike in an urban cluster such as Delhi, where the Anna Hazare movement picked up on social media and ultimately led to Aam Aadmi Party’s rule, the electorate here may not get swayed by Facebook pages, he posits. It will vote on the basis of unchanging factors: caste, religion, village affiliation, he says.

If the election turns out to be a close one with thin winning margins, as many are predicting, social media would have paid a decisive role in #UPElections2017  

“In Uttar Pradesh, 60% voters, the bulk voters, are villagers. You are not not giving them electricity, you are not giving them roads, they watch TV after charging a battery, and only Doordarshan. In such a scenario, generating vote banks on the basis of videos will be a problem and it will take a long time”, he argues. “In villages, caste equation holds sway; or Hindu versus Muslim; or woman candidate versus male, these factors count.”

Social or real? Which way will India’s largest — and most crucial — state election gravitate this year? One thing’s for sure: if the election turns out to be a close one with thin winning margins in individual constituencies, as many are predicting, social media would have paid a decisive role in #UPElections2017.


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